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D’ carries team in Michigan victory

Bill Brink | Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Michigan head coach Kevin Borseth summarized Notre Dame’s defensive prowess this season with one sentence.

“I just feel like a wounded fish in shark-infested waters,” Borseth said after Notre Dame’s defense shredded Michigan in its 77-46 win over the Wolverines Sunday.

Borseth wrote off Michigan’s offensive stagnancy to lack of execution, but anyone watching could see a disparity between his explanation and the actual happenings of the game. The Irish pressed the Wolverines deep in their zone, played tight defense on the perimeter, and utilized double-teams effectively.

Michigan had a size advantage over the Irish, most notably in 6-foot-6 center Krista Phillips. But what they lacked, and what Notre Dame has used to its advantage this season, were quickness and athleticism.

Notre Dame got a hand or body in the way of numerous passes or shots in the game. The Irish full-court press kept Michigan in its zone for extended periods of time, and when the Wolverines did set up its half-court offense, Notre Dame could double-team players and still have time to get back in position after a pass.

The Irish alternated between man-to-man and zone defense, something coach Muffet McGraw said helped keep the Wolverines guessing.

“I think we kept them off balance a little bit,” McGraw said after the game. “When we press we like to fall back into the zone. I like playing the zone, I think we’re good at it, and I also like the man-to-man, so I think if we can keep switching it on and off it will help keep us a little bit more intense.”

One didn’t have to look hard to find examples. In the last five minutes of the first half, guard Tulyah Gaines lunged to her left to knock a pass out of bounds.

“Defensively, [Gaines is] active, she can steal,” McGraw said. “I think that’s what got us going early, her in the middle of the press creating havoc with Michigan. I think she’s doing absolutely everything we could ask of in a point guard.”

Minutes later, guard Ashley Barlow came off the back line in the 2-3 zone to help with a double-team near the elbow. When the ball went into the corner, Barlow made it back in time to throw a hand in the shooter’s face.

“She’s just so unafraid. She’s fearless, she’s relentless, she’s determined, and she’ll do anything, absolutely anything it takes for us to win,” McGraw said of Barlow.

One minute after that, guard Melissa Lechlitner got her 5-foot-7 body up high enough to steal a cross-court pass.

McGraw said that Lechlitner, who had four assists and two steals, made a major difference in the game.

“It was a seamless transition from Tulyah going out, getting all those steals and making us go defensively, and then Lech came in and did pretty much the same thing,” McGraw said. “She ran the team, she got some steals, she gave us energy.”

Notre Dame did not let up in the second half. Soon after the half began, Notre Dame again presented Michigan with a tight full-court press. The Wolverines managed to inbound the ball past the press, and called out, “Fast break, fast break,” as they ran down the floor. They ran the fast break, but center Melissa D’Amico stonewalled the charge and forced the drive underneath the basket by the baseline. By that time, Gaines had made her way back and forced Michigan into a set offense.

The Irish use their quickness and athleticism on defense to set up their fast-break offense, guard Charel Allen said.

“We like to rebound and run, and that’s what we did on them,” she said.

With 13 minutes to play, Barlow intercepted a pass and fed it to guard Lindsay Schrader. Schrader penetrated the lane before throwing a no-look pass behind her back to Gaines, who made an easy layup.

Part of the reason why the Irish can play such a fast-paced athletic game is that they can sub often.

“I think because of the depth we can sub more,” McGraw said. “When someone looks tired, we can take them out and they can rest up a little bit before we put them back in. I think they play harder while they’re in there. They play five or six minutes at a stretch because they know they can get out and rest.”

Notre Dame held Michigan to just 12 field goals and eight assists in the game and forced 22 turnovers. McGraw, however, said the defense can play better.

“I think when we watch the film I think we’ll see that we weren’t as intense on the defensive end as we needed to be,” she said. “I didn’t think that our defense was as good as the score indicates.”